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Orange slowly moving past budget tracking woes

ORANGE — Just as New Englanders saw last week’s melting icicles as hopeful signs of spring, at least one town department manager is encouraged by subtle signs the long-frozen flow of financial information may be — ever so slowly — starting to thaw.

Water Department Superintendent Michael Heidorn, who spoke out numerous times over the past year about the lack of timely and accurate financial reports, said he recently received an expense report generated through the town’s new accounting software.

Town officials say the shift to a new accounting system and vacancies on the financial team are to blame for the lack of financial reports over the past year.

Heidorn said he is optimistic the report is a positive indication the financial team may be starting to get on top of the backlog of work that has jammed the flow of reports to town departments, committees and boards.

“We’re making progress,” Heidorn said. “We’re working with the treasurer. I know she’s doing all she can.”

The lack of expense and revenue reports was one of several reasons the Finance Committee did not recommend two of the selectmen’s requests for appropriations at Wednesday’s special town meeting.

At the meeting, Selectboard Chairwoman Kathy Reinig said that while “We’re all aware and very frustrated” by the lack of reports, the switch to the new accounting system was necessary, as the old system provided little or no training or support to employees.

Reinig added the reports have lagged even further behind as Treasurer Gabriel Voelker “uncovered things that were not reported properly previously … We can either finish it quickly or do it properly.”

While the finance team has been kicking out several expense reports since late last year, Heidorn said he has not received any revenue reports since last May.

As a result, he still has no idea what revenue the department has to work with. The water and sewer departments are the only town services that operate solely on revenues received from residents using those systems.

As water payments are sent directly to Town Hall, the lack of revenue reports has “left us kind of hamstrung ... We need those numbers before we can figure out what we can do” in terms of making capital purchases and investments. Water commissioners also need accurate revenue figures to determine whether or not to adjust water rates each year.

And he said the financial team is still behind in transferring revenue into the water department’s account. The last transfer was in May. As the department’s budget is roughly $700,000, he said. “Hundreds of thousands of dollars are not accounted for.”

He said he received word the treasurer has set up a separate account for water and sewer revenues. Earlier this year, some of the water department’s bills were not paid on time as the result of the town’s cash flow problems within the general fund. The new account “will avoid that problem down the road.”

According to Finance Committee Chairwoman Linda Smith, Heidorn wrote a lengthy email detailing his problems wrestling financial information from Town Hall over the past year or so. The committee sent Steve Garrity to attend the Water Commissioner’s meeting this month.

“We were thrilled to have a Finance Committee representative come and listen and discuss our concerns,” Heidorn said.

“It was horrible last year,” Heidorn said about the dearth of financial reports, “but it’s time to move on ... I’m still hopeful we can get the financial information ... We’re going to need to work fast, but I think we can pull a budget together in time for the annual meeting.”

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